the making of bobby jindal June 23, 2008Posted by KG in 2008 Elections, comedy, politics, race, religion.
Tags: barack obama, bobby jindal, catholicism, exorcism, hinduism, john mccain, lousiana
When Bobby Jindal was 12, a Southern Baptist friend named Kent gave him a paperback Bible for Christmas. Jindal was disappointed, not least because the Bible was engraved with his name and thus unreturnable. “I was raised in a strong Hindu culture, attended weekly pujas, or ceremonial rites, and read the Vedic scriptures,” Jindal wrote in a 1993 article in America, a Jesuit magazine, one of many religious essays he published in the early nineties. “I considered myself anti-Christian,” he wrote in another piece; elsewhere, he confided that he thought Christians worshipped fish (“in the same way that many Westerners think Hindus worship cows”). The Bible went into a closet, and might have remained there had Jindal not sneaked away with a girl from a high-school dance at a Baton Rouge hotel.
Jindal and the girl, Kathy, slipped off to the rooftop and talked about their futures. She aimed to be a Supreme Court justice, she told him, so that she could stop people from “killing babies.” Her passion astonished Jindal. “While she could not reply to any one of my arguments for abortion,” he later wrote, “I could not help but be amazed by her genuine compassion and innocence. . . . Kathy’s sincere convictions showed me an aspect of Christianity I had never encountered before.”
Thus began Jindal’s conversion to Catholicism, an epic process into which he funneled all his trademark energies, intellectual and otherwise. “I even learned bits of Latin, Greek and Hebrew,” he later wrote. In the same closet to which he had once consigned Kent’s Bible, Jindal now studied its verses by flashlight, away from his parents’ eyes. “I was probably the first teenager who ever told his parents he was going to a party so that he could sneak off to church,” he wrote. “My parents were infuriated by my conversion. [They] blamed themselves for being bad parents, blamed me for being a bad son and blamed evangelists for spreading dissension.”
But Jindal’s own writings on the subject—extensive, and largely overlooked—suggest a fierce depth to his adopted religious beliefs. Jindal entered Brown University at the age of 17, as a biology and public-policy major intent on a career in medicine, and it was there in Providence, Rhode Island, that he was baptized. While at Brown, a friend of Jindal’s—whom he called Susan in his 1994 account—confided to him that a lump on her scalp had been found to be cancerous and that she was seeing visions and being plagued by the sulfurous odors traditionally associated with demons. Later, during a University Christian Fellowship prayer meeting on campus, Susan fell to the floor and “started thrashing about,” Jindal wrote, “as if in some kind of seizure.” She was screaming his name, but Jindal stayed back while the other UCF members pinned her down and chanted “Satan, I command you to leave this woman.” One brandished a crucifix. “It appeared as if we were observing a tremendous battle between the Susan we knew and loved and some strange evil force,” he wrote. After a protracted struggle, Susan’s fits subsided. This amateur exorcism, Jindal wrote, seemed to work wonders. When surgeons removed the lump, they “found no traces of cancerous cells.” Susan “claimed she had felt healed after the group prayer,” he wrote. “The physician’s improbable explanation that the biopsy may have removed all the cancerous tissue is no less far-fetched.” Though the cancer was gone, Jindal’s concerns over Susan’s possession weren’t: “With holy water and blessed crucifixes, I have even given her physical protection from the demons that have only once reappeared, and then for a mere moment.”
As an undergrad at Brown, Jindal interned for Jim McCrery, a Republican congressman from Shreveport, Louisiana. One week into the job, Jindal asked if he could have something substantive to work on. Annoyed, McCrery asked him to formulate a solution to a problem considered intractable by those on Capitol Hill: Medicare. “He just grinned,” McCrery recalls. “I expected never to see him again.” Two weeks later, Jindal plopped a thick manuscript on McCrery’s desk: Medicare, solved (at least to Jindal’s thinking). Jindal’s analysis, McCrery says, “was excellent.” Especially from a 20-year-old.
By 1994, Jindal had been to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and had taken a lucrative job as a consultant in Washington, D.C. But he was already restless. He called McCrery to recommend himself for Louisiana’s secretary of health and hospitals, a cabinet-level position involving oversight of 40 percent of the state budget. “Remember,” McCrery says, “Bobby was like 23 years old. So I asked if he’d consider a deputy position.” Jindal said no. A year later, McCrery got Jindal an audience with Republican governor Mike Foster. “When they told me he was 24, I wasn’t very interested,” Foster says. But in person Jindal won him over and Foster hired him on the spot. “Most people who border on genius,” Foster says, “they’re not too personable. But he’s personable.”
That combustible mixture—high-caliber smarts and higher-caliber ambition—combined with a smooth, polished demeanor, has fueled Jindal’s rocket-ship rise through Louisiana politics. Jindal calls himself a “policy wonk at heart”; ask him about an issue and you’ll hear all 31 points of a 31-point plan. Yet his wonkiness is decidedly (Bill) Clintonesque: suffused with the gleam of personality and devoid of lecture-hall drone. “I want to be the most boring but most effective governor,” he says. “My wife says I have the boring part down.”
“That includes David Duke’s old district,” Foster notes, dismissing suggestions that Jindal’s ethnicity is a factor. Jindal rarely plays up his heritage, despite the fact that 40 percent of his campaign contributions for the 2003 election came from Indian-Americans in Louisiana and elsewhere. “He’s kept his distance from the Indian-American community,” Rao says. “Not one mention of maybe the music his parents listened to, or the food that he ate growing up—nothing.”
As a political tactic, this has its benefits. “My grandparents, they’re real old-school, and they didn’t vote for Jindal the first time around because of his ethnicity,” a self-proclaimed racist (“I can’t help it, man, that’s the way I am”) told me in the bar of McCain’s Baton Rouge hotel. But it’s also apparent that many “old-school” white voters have set aside their qualms about sending a brown-skinned man to the governor’s mansion—both the self-described racist and his grandparents cast their ballots for Jindal in 2007. “I’ll tell you,” he said, explaining his vote, “Jindal’s just not your typical African-American.”
“If there’s a criticism of Bobby,” says Mike Foster, “it’s that he hasn’t stayed in a job long enough.” Which brings us back to John McCain, and Jindal’s place on the senator’s short list of potential running mates. Pundits suggest Jindal would be an ideal counterbalance to Obama, both because of his youth and because of the fact that he too offers voters the chance to pull the lever for a barrier-breaking candidate. Jindal would also prop up McCain’s conservative bona fides: He’s opposed to abortion even in cases involving incest or rape, supports teaching intelligent design, voted in Congress for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a heterosexual institution, voted to seal the U.S.-Mexico border with a fence, and has been a staunch supporter of the war in Iraq. It’s easy to foresee his becoming, to crib from Robert Penn Warren, “a boy wonder breathing brimstone” on the national stage. So easy, in fact, that it seems more a matter of when than if. “[He’s] the model for Republican victory,” Rush Limbaugh has said, calling Jindal “the next Ronald Reagan.